Ask Mormon Girl: I don’t think I’m a literal believer; can I still be Mormon?

Readers, this week’s query is a long one, but worth every word. Please stick with it:

Dear Ask Mormon Girl,

I really flipped for Joseph Smith when I met him in Fawn Brodie’s amazing biography, No Man Knows My History. I know there are Mormons who’ve left the church because of Brodie’s book, but I felt Smith — warts and all — was a modern prophet. He was funny, wonderfully funny, though no one seemed to talk about him that way, and even ironic and modern. I leapt at the chance to sign on as a writer for the 2007 PBS series on “The Mormons.” Towards the end of production, I was stopped in traffic by a head-splitting revelation of God’s presence. I slowly realized I was in the midst of a conversion experience. I was honored and completely panicked. But after some months of trying to put the shattering moment behind me, I decided Joseph was a prophet through whose authority I could believe in God.

As of last fall, I’ve been going to church in my local Mormon ward. I’ve attended the Gospel Principles class and recently, I’ve become an investigator with the missionaries. I have mostly lead the secular life of a free lance intellectual. The question of believing in God (or not) always seemed separate from the particulars of any one religion. I felt that my belief would grow and deepen as I got more involved in Mormon doctrine and the church. The ideas I knew like eternal progression were a very interesting variation on the general human aspiration to overcome death. I felt I would be able to negotiate other Mormon beliefs according to this humanist approach. But the Gospel Principles class and the missionaries’ teaching is full of what I consider “ideas” which are presented as “truths.” They are fine as “ideas,” but it makes me very anxious to consider them “truths.” The pre-existence and all that goes on there is an example of what I’m talking about. On the day we studied the war in the pre-existence, our teacher (a smart, witty young woman) illustrated the stand off between Christ and Satan by writing their names on the board. Then she wrote “2/3rds” under Christ and “1/3rd” under Satan to indicate the fractions standing for and against God among the spirits in heaven. We could have been studying Charlemagne’s troop count in his battle against the Moors. I asked a Mormon friend if I was supposed to accept the battle in the pre-existence literally, and she said, “Yes.”

I do not think I will ever be able to see the battle in the pre-existence literally. Yet I remain attracted to Joseph Smith and Mormonism. Joseph himself seems so imaginative. I know he also had a sense of the need for centralized authority. Would he say we have to take all the details of his theology as facts? If not, do you have any advice for how I can accept these kinds of literal teachings without stretching my credulity beyond belief?

Sincerely,

Kate

Let me get this straight: you’re a smart, funny secular intellectual who fell in love with Joseph Smith through Fawn Brodie and decided to get serious about Mormonism after writing for PBS’s “The Mormons” documentary? Sister Kate: Holy. Moly. You’ve come in through the out door! Welcome to Mormonism! I’m thrilled you are here!

Let’s start with some straight talk: while it’s true that non-literalist approaches to doctrine may dominate other world religions, it is probably accurate to say that the vast majority of Mormons active in the LDS Church today are literalist and orthodox in their beliefs. There are Mormons who have transitioned from literalist to non-literalist or other unorthodox doctrinal perspectives. Some find it difficult to remain active, while others continue to attend and serve but remain fairly quiet about their non-literalist and unorthodox viewpoints. In fact, unless you attend the rare university or urban ward known for its robust friendliness to doctrinal diversity, it is very likely that you will hear only literalist perspectives spoken aloud on Sundays. Church can be a lonely three hours for the non-literalist or unorthodox Mormon, and many try to remedy their lonesomeness by plugging into internet communities of like-minded Mormons, or dialing into blogs like this one or Feminist Mormon Housewives, or listening to the Mormon Stories podcast.

That’s what the belief landscape generally looks like in the Mormon world. But must you believe Mormon scriptures and Mormon doctrines to be literally true in order to qualify as a Mormon?

I suspect that the missionaries who teach you and ecclesiastical leaders who interview you for baptism will have their own standards for answering this question, and you must answer in a way that is true to your conscience.

Two things I’d encourage you to consider:  first, what do you understand by the word believe?   Some etymologists hold that the word believe shares the same Teutonic or Gothic linguistic roots as the word love. Could it be that be-loving Mormon doctrine or Mormon history is a form of be-lieving? Could it be that the act of be-lieving does consist exclusively in holding an idea to be fundamentally and absolutely certain but perhaps also in the act of making oneself open and available to a potential for truth despite a lack of certainty? Is believing more like hands closed around a concept, or hands empty but open and turned palms up in seeking and gratitude? Or is it some mixture of both?

The second question I’d encourage you to contemplate as you explore this faith is this: do you continue to feel that traffic-stopping, head-splitting presence of God in the context of Mormonism, and is it worth it to you to stay even if you know you may be lonely on Sundays? Is it worth it to you to call yourself a Mormon even if most of your fellow Mormons will not share in the particular quality of your belief? Do you love this tradition that much?

I’ve had one or two traffic-stopping, head-splitting moments in my life, and they’ve made all the difference in my unorthodox faith journey. Readers, now it’s your turn—what do you have to say to Kate? What wisdom can you share about literal belief and day-to-day faith practice?

Send your query to askmormongirl@gmail.com, or follow askmormongirl on Twitter.

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3 Comments

Filed under belief, literalism

3 responses to “Ask Mormon Girl: I don’t think I’m a literal believer; can I still be Mormon?

  1. TaterTot

    “Sister Kate: Holy. Moly. You’ve come in through the out door! Welcome to Mormonism! I’m thrilled you are here!”

    I am with JoAnn on this one. Welcome Kate! I am in the “Mormons who have transitioned from literalist to non-literalist or other unorthodox doctrinal perspectives” category mentioned by JoAnn. It has been an interesting journey for me and I do find that I am often lonely or frustrated by Sunday meetings. However, I enjoy the chance to associate with my fellow branch members, whether they hold the same beliefs or not. I, like you Kate, have a fascination with Joseph Smith, warts and all, and this is what gets me through. I hope that the leaders in your area are understanding and excepting of people with unorthodox belief systems. As for me I say, welcome! We need more people like you in our church.

  2. Emma

    Dear Kate:

    If you need the authority of Joseph Smith to believe in God (whether that’s “believe” as we understand it as it is commonly used today, or in the “be-love” sense Joanna suggests), ask yourself WHY. Do you really believe that grace is available to you only through your study and engagement of a very flawed person who would indeed expect you take his words and teachings as literal truth?

    Plenty of people are fascinated by Joseph Smith. He was a fascinating guy. Harold Bloom, for instance, totally digs the guy. But HB just talks and writes about him. He didn’t need to join any of the the churches who claim JS as their founder.

    Mormonism is a lonely religion to begin with. There will always be lots of people around you, but the many, many individuals within the church are bound up inside themselves by the scripts that constitute what is acceptable discourse. You can talk about your family, and you can talk about your enthusiasm for the doctrine of the church, and you can talk about how you “know” (not merely “believe”) that things like the war in heaven are actual, historical (albeit otherworldly) facts.

    You cannot talk, at least not in church meetings or with most of the rank and file membership, about the fact that you “doubt” all the “facts” you are expected to accept. Which of course you already sense, as you are writing to “ask Mormon girl,” instead of discussing this with the missionaries or the members who are trying to convert you.

    The level of superficiality and scriptedness makes it hard to form relationships strong enough to survive when someone deviates from orthodoxy. As someone who left Mormonism precisely because I could not say that I “knew” any number of things that seemed patently nonsensical, I have frequent reminders of this.

    All of which is to say, none of that will impede baptism. You can join the church with doubts. But the expectation will always be that your doubts are part of your failings, not part of your strengths, and that they will go away as you are immersed in the church. If nothing else, you will be expected to say that you “know” the church is “the only true and living church on the face of the earth” until you actuallyDO “know” it.

    If you can do that, then you’ll be fully assimilated.
    If you can’t, you won’t.

    You can decide which of those scenarios is more palatable to you.

  3. A

    Okay, first of all welcome to Mormonism :)

    Now, I hope you understand that there are many things taught in the Mormon religion, but not all of them are given the same weight. For example: “Jesus Christ atoned for our sins” is more important than “There was a war in heaven.” However, you will find that most LDS folk have similar beliefs about even the small stuff because of what we learn in Sunday School growing up. My advice? Take some time. Don’t cast out anything yet, but don’t feel obligated to believe something you don’t. Just listen, ask questions, and focus on the things that bring the Spirit to your life and make you feel Heavenly Father’s love. Good luck on your journey and remember–faith and testimonies take time. Don’t freak if you don’t believe everything right away, as you learn more some things will make more sense and some things may not. Pray frequently and let the Spirit guide you (and, seriously, bishops can be a great resource as well)

    http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/approaching-mormon-doctrine

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